I’ll admit it; when The Star-Spangled Banner was played before yesterday’s FIFA World Cup match in the heart of the Brazilian rain forest and those 20,000 American fans sang at the top of their lungs, tears welled up in my eyes. That song and that setting touched a tender place in me, a place that has something to do with my love for this country and what it stands for. I get some of the same feelings when I see flags popping up on lawns this time of the year, just as surely as the tulips popping out of the ground in May.
It’s easy for me to equate that sentimentality with patriotism. But I dare not. It’s way too easy. At its heart, patriotism is both broader and deeper.
Our English word, patriotism, has its roots in the Latin word, patria; in the ancient usage, the patria referred to one’s family or city or homeland. Wrapped up that usage is the notion that a certain duty of honor is required towards one’s family or one’s city or one’s country. It implies faithfulness in honoring one’s obligations of support and a concern for the healthy conditions that provide for a stable society. To hold those values in such honor is to cherish those gifts, to work to preserve them, and to pass them on intact to the next generation.
Luke Bretherton of Duke Divinity School in his forthcoming book, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life, describes that faithfulness to community like this, “I did not create the language, values, and legal system or the environmental, economic, and political context on which I depend and so I owe the people and place which made it possible a duty of care and respect for and loyalty to the gift I received.”
Broad-based community organizing talks about the three-legged stool of a strong democratic society: the market, the government, and and active citizenry. While the market and government wield substantial power in American democracy — and one might argue that they hold so much power that we no longer function as a democracy — the citizenry to a large extent has abdicated its important corrective role. Patriotism is that very engagement in holding the country accountable for providing the conditions for the common good; patriotism carries not only the possibility, but the obligation of criticism when the actions of the community at large hamper the conditions for what contributes to the common good. Patriotism obligates me not only to make my voice heard when my country is not behaving according to the values that it claims to hold, but to take action for the sake of that common good.
So, join me in putting a flag on your front porch or planting one in your lawn for the celebration of Independence Day. Just don’t confuse that with patriotism. If you want to be a patriot, then you’d better roll up your sleeves and get engaged.